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Off the Cuff: One Step Behind

That was always UCF’s mantra — until now

TCU v West Virginia Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

One step behind.

That has been the mantra for UCF Knights Athletics when it comes to conference affiliation from time immemorial. Dating back to UCF’s initial foray into Division I, the Knights receiving an invitation was always one step behind.

It started in 1990, six years after the Knights moved up to Division I when they joined the American South Conference. After a year, the Sun Belt Conference had a mass exodus and the ASC merged with the SBC. This mass exodus included some geographically confused school named South Florida. They’ll pop up again. Oddly enough, the majority of the schools leaving the Sun Belt went to the Metro Conference, which just dealt with a mass exodus of their own. UCF’s conference history would be intertwined with the Metro as they were the predecessor to Conference USA.

UCF’s stay in the Sun Belt was very short-lived. Due to a television dispute ($), the Knights left the SBC for the Trans Atlantic Athletic Conference, the TAAC for short, which would later rebrand as the Atlantic Sun. While my colleague Jeff did a what if on UCF joining Conference USA a few years ago, had UCF stayed in the Sun Belt, it might have opened the door for the Knights to be part of that initial CUSA group. Let’s ignore the fact that UCF athletic director Steve Sloan had some major delusions of grandeur thinking one of the big conferences was going to call. Major miss here.

Fast forward a few years to 2003. UCF, a football-only member of the Mid-American Conference with the rest of their sports in the ASUN(the Sun Belt would have come in handy here) has started a free fall that would span a 17-game losing streak. The Big East lost Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East had to reload and pegged CUSA’s Louisville and Cincinnati to come in as all-sports teams along with Marquette and Depaul as basketball schools. They needed one more football-playing school and were considering UCF as a football-only member ($). Unfortunately, UCF’s infrastructure in the ASun was so subpar, when Boston College announced their departure, the Knights were no longer considered, and South Florida, a I-A football newbie in CUSA, got the all-sports invite.

To keep one step behind, as a reactionary move to the mass exodus out of Conference USA, UCF was subsequently invited to join CUSA and officially joined in 2005. Are you seeing a pattern yet?


Ok, let’s move forward a little more forward in time to 2010. The Big East, who had eight football-playing members since the 2005 realignment decided they were ready to expand ahead of a new media deal. They first invited TCU out of the Mountain West, who left CUSA right before UCF joined. The second team became a hot topic of debate. One team being floated was Villanova, a basketball member of the conference with an FCS football program. The expectation was that they’d invest to elevate to FBS. This was a stupid idea and it went nowhere. The next school was Houston. The president of the university had some close ties to others within the conference and the idea of adding the Texas market to the footprint. Considering this was 2010 and the broadcast world was much different then, this was also a stupid idea, albeit less stupid than Villanova. Lastly, UCF was the third team and ESPN’s preferred choice. Unfortunately, Brett McMurphy’s article about ESPN having a then generous media package offer while pushing for the Knights’ inclusion doesn’t exist anymore, the Twitterverse(or is it Xverse now?) remembers why this plan didn’t work.

I’m not saying. I’m just saying.

For the record, the Big East balked and by the next year, the league really began to unravel.

In 2011, Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced they were leaving for the ACC. TCU backed out of joining the Big East and joined the Big 12 instead. Joining TCU was West Virginia. A would-be nine-team league was now down to five. Once again, as a reactionary move, UCF was finally invited along with Houston and SMU as full-time members with Boise State and San Diego State as football-only members to join in 2013. The league’s future membership went nuts over the next year and changed before the Knights officially joined.

  • Invites and departures included:
  • Invite Navy for football (2015)
  • Invite Memphis from C-USA for all sports (2013)
  • Invite Temple for all sports (2013). Football would join a year prior
  • Notre Dame leaves for the ACC (2013)
  • Rutgers leaves for the Big Ten (2014)
  • Invite Tulane from C-USA (2014)
  • Invite East Carolina from C-USA for football (2014).
  • Louisville leaves for the ACC (2014). ECU upgraded to all-sports members.
  • Catholic Seven break off and would later buy the Big East name and trademarks.
  • Boise State and SDSU back out from joining the conference
  • Invite Tulsa from C-USA (2014)
  • Conference renamed the American Athletic Conference

UCF agreed to join the Big East in late 2011. Six months later, the BCS was scrapped, the CFP was formed, and this new AAC was no longer part of the haves crowd. UCF went from joining the Big East with schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Villanova and the wide open world as a BCS auto-qualifying conference member to the AAC, aka CUSA 2.0, and a member of the Group of Five with a one-year timing difference. Talk about the rug being pulled out from under you.

Now we move to 2021. In the most recent round of realignment, where the SEC surprised everyone by inviting Texas and Oklahoma after no conference decided to pick up any of the remaining eight Big 12 schools, the conference got to work. They reached out and brought in four schools: UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati from the AAC and BYU, a football independent with their other sports in the West Coast Conference. Media pundits everywhere cried that the conference was doomed to mediocrity and a worthless shell of its former self.

Once again, UCF was a reactionary invitee, but unlike previous rounds, by the time the dust settled, UCF would be on the winning side.

Alright, I need to go back and say I’m totally saying. The third time is the charm and UCF isn’t one step behind South Florida anymore. I have zero sympathy that UCF’s west-southwestern siblings got passed up.

So not only did UCF join the Big 12, the conference outfoxed the PAC-12 in media negotiations and put together a new media deal in 2025 that will pay the Knights $31mil and change before adding on other revenue streams.

This isn’t like what happened with the Big East where it looked like UCF made it only for the ground to crumble beneath them. The Big 12 survived. The Big 12 thrived and UCF is along for the ride.

Let me repeat myself if I wasn’t clear before:

UCF won.

However, what started as tragic has become downright absurd.

During the time between when the UCF was invited in 2021 to after they officially joined the Big 12 in 2023, the PAC-12 fell apart. USC and UCLA announced their departure for the Big Ten and the conference’s media value tanked. After seeing how little money traditional networks had to work with and bad their perceived value has become, schools began to flee en masse. Oregon and Washington are off to an 18-team Big Ten. Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah have joined UCF in the Big 12 to make it a 16-team conference in 2024. Cal-Berkley, Stanford, Oregon State, and Washington State are still trying to figure things out.

To summarize, the PAC-12 as a conference didn’t have much value, but USC and UCLA are worth over $50 million a year while Oregon, Washington, Colorado, the two Arizona schools, and Utah are worth over $30 million a year. Stanford is the most successful athletic department in the nation. So are these schools just worthless together or is this something else? I’m just waiting for someone to try to throw down a Sherman Anti-Trust Act-related lawsuit.

Seeing the PAC-12, a conference rich in history and national championships dating back to its predecessor conference, the Pacific Coast Conference, in 1915 deteriorate to what looks to be oblivion is tragic. If there is one thing this has reminded us, there’s no solidarity in this business. There’s only Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.

Is it nice to see a sinking ship of a conference? No. Is it nice for once to see a sinking ship and not see UCF stuck on it? Yes.

Insert low tide horn here. Enjoy the ride.